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‘Bad projects not bad project managers’ lead to cost overruns on public projects

Government decisions to go ahead with badly put together projects and not poor project management are to blame for cost escalation on major infrastructure schemes, a senior construction client has warned.

The former head of capital investment at a major UK client has hit out at plans for a multi-million major projects academy to boost skills in the civil service.

Earlier this month Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced plans to spend £6.7M on a major projects leadership academy to train civil servants in a bid to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

Expensive consultants

The government hopes the move will reduce “over-reliance” on what is describes as “expensive” external consultants.

In future no one will be able to lead a major government project without completing the three year-long academy programme.

The Said Business School is to run the academy, with 50 civil servants a year expected to be put through a combination of formal teaching and personal development.

But the senior industry source said the initiative failed to tackle the root cause of project failures.

“Why do projects get screwed up? Was it because there were no civil servants to oversee the project? No. It’s because they were rubbish projects.”

Pointing to disastrous projects such as the recently binned £12bn NHS IT system, he asked: “Where was the analysis behind the decision to invest?”

Joined up thinking needed

“Now we have an idea for spending a lot of money with the Said Business School. People are asking ‘how does this academy fit with the government’s stated objectives?’ How does it fit? I don’t know. None of this is joined up.”

He added that too many large infrastructure projects were announced prematurely by politicians wanting to gain advantage before research has been done to prove their value.

Academy director and Said Business School fellow in operations management Paul Chapman defended the initiative, saying it was about “upgrading” civil servants’ leadership abilities and “helping them make strategic decisions”.

“Presumably there is a benefit to having a more informed client and if the government can only nudge it in that direction it can only benefit,” he said. “If the government raises its game then it’s likely that industry will also have to raise its game.”

“This is an important step in our plans to reform the civil service,” said Maude.

“We want to build world-class project leadership skills within government.

“Starting with our current leaders, we will develop a generation of professionals that is internationally recognised for its skill and expertise.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Will someone in Government not learn that to get the necessary experience and judgement capability to do such a job you need extensive "hands-on" experience as well as the required technical/commercial qualifications gained from past personal experience, and not a few weeks or even a year on some academic course.

    That's why the UK needs private industry experienced qualified engineers in senior civil service positions and in government. The idea that we'll ever get the joined up thinking, and project management capability within the UK with civil servants and MP's/Ministers with Classics, PPE, or Law degrees is farcical!

    I have great sympathy with the senior industry spokesman. If the Client doesn't reasonably know what he wants at the outset - with all the major functional requirements adequately defined and interfaced, and particularly on IT/Software projects, then he can't blame others afterwards for massive time or cost increases and even in the extreme projects that do not achieve performance or become too complex because of the ongoing series of quite significant additions and changes introduced over an extended period of the Project Period.

    The complaint about lack of joined up thinking can be applied generally such lack of interfacing between projects or considerations of the future needs, constraints and changes. Selling off railway land along abandonned routes and demolishing bridges under Beeching lost a golden opportunity for reducing road congestion and increasing commuter capacity; and lack of provision for a future Water Grid in the past are just 2 examples!

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